Not surprisingly, given the deep skepticism of OMB and OST with respect to the wisdom of going ahead with a large space shuttle, last ditch opposition to approving NASA’s shuttle plans continued. David wrote Shultz on December 30, saying that he was “disturbed by the prospect that a decision will be made” to approve the full-sized shuttle. It was David’s view that “the large space program implicit in the large shuttle decision is not consistent with the best interests of this nation.” David was joined in opposition by Rice and his OMB space staff, who remained dubious regarding the economic justification for a large shuttle, saying that “all of the decisions regarding the Shuttle should be made in the full awareness that the Shuttle is not a cost – effective system—whether at 15′ x 60′ or any other size.” Thus, what should be approved was “the smallest Shuttle which can offer improvements over our current methods of operation. Any size Shuttle will provide manned space flight and national prestige.”6
Weinberger offered Rice one last chance to make the case against a large shuttle. On December 30, Weinberger called Fletcher, asking for another look at a shuttle with a 14 x 45 foot payload bay but limited to lifting only 30,000 pounds to orbit. This suggestion came from Rice. Low reported that “Fletcher came close to telling Weinberger to go to hell.” Fletcher then called Shultz “and had another lengthy conversation with him.” Shultz was also “unwilling to make a decision and recommended that we should not yet go to see the President but take one more look at the request made by Rice and presumably David.” The next day, Friday, December 31, Fletcher and Low “held a telephone conversation with David and Rice without really getting any new information. Rice did all of the talking and David was very quiet.” Low added
Rice said that he would still like to see us go ahead with the 12 x 40′ 30,000 lb. Shuttle, but that they’re willing to give in on size. . . He wanted us to crank up studies over the weekend to answer all of his questions. I pointed out that our people had already scattered for New Year’s. . . I called Rice back later and asked him for a piece of paper to spell out in writing, once and for all, all that he wanted us to do. He indicated that the piece of paper would be a good idea but that he would not commit that it would, once and for all, ask all his questions.7
OMB sent eight questions to NASA, including “if future budgets for NASA were constrained to $3.2-$3.3 B, would you still want to do the large Shuttle?” and “why should a relatively few space station modules for the mid-1980’s determine the size and weight capabilities of the Shuttle?” Other questions dealt with more specific technical issues. By the following Monday, NASA had developed answers to most of OMB’s questions. With respect to the first query, NASA said “the answer is yes”; with respect to the second, NASA provided a detailed list of the payloads other than space station modules that required a weight-lifting capability of over 30,000 pounds.8
Reflecting on the need to respond to OMB’s questions, a frustrated George Low complained that “there is nobody [likely referring to Shultz and Weinberger] in the White House willing to make any decisions. Everybody feels that the issue of Shuttle size is too small [not important enough] an issue to take to the President. . . but they’re also unwilling to let the Administrator of NASA to make that decision.” The result was that “they let their various staffs continue to. . . ask nickel and dime sized questions without ever calling a halt to that procedure and say it’s about time we made up our mind and let’s proceed.” Looking back at the decision process several years later, Low added “the single most significant factor affecting the space shuttle decision was that there was no top-level leadership in the White House. President Nixon was unwilling to deal with his agency heads and dealt solely with his staff. This placed a great deal of decision-making responsibility with the OMB, and by definition the OMB is far more interested in short-range budgetary problems than in the long-range future of the nation.” Low’s criticism was not completely fair; both David and Rice couched their opposition to the large shuttle in terms of its longer term impact on the U. S. space program, not just on shorter-term budget issues.9
In advance of the late afternoon meeting on January 3, 1972, at which a decision how to proceed with the shuttle had to be made, David and Rice continued their opposition to the choice of a large shuttle. By this point, they recognized that some sort of announcement of presidential approval of shuttle development was a fait accompli, but were still arguing for having President Nixon make that announcement only in principle, without deciding on a specific shuttle design. David on January 3 sent another memorandum to Shultz, this time arguing that “it would be desirable to defer a decision on the configuration, while announcing the Administration’s intention of proceeding with development of a new, reusable space vehicle for man and other payloads that will use advanced technology.” David suggested a three-month delay in selecting a shuttle configuration; during that time, NASA studies would “complete detailed examination of the lower cost alternatives to the full Shuttle capability.” Rice supported David’s argument, telling Shultz “Dr. David’s proposals. . . appear to make a great deal of sense,” and that “the Administration should carefully examine the alternatives before committing itself to a very costly and potentially unpopular large new space program.” Rice noted that “after urging by OMB and OST, NASA has only in December started looking at possible smaller and less costly alternatives—compared to about two years of study for the bigger system.” With the deadline for printing the president’s budget message fast approaching, Rice suggested that the budget message should include only “a general announcement of a decision to proceed with development of a new system for lower cost delivery of man and other payloads into space.”10 Both Rice and David resisted calling that new system a “shuttle.”
David and Rice may have exceeded their appropriate staff roles in trying to change the minds of their political leaders by arguing in support of their strong conviction that approving the NASA shuttle was not in the country’s interests. For example, Rice had sought outside help from the aerospace industry in developing OMB’s alternate shuttle design and used shuttle approval as a bargaining chip in attempting to get NASA to downsize its institutional base. He gave little weight in his opposition to issues such as aerospace unemployment and the political impact of shuttle approval on the 1972 presidential election. In the judgment of one close observer of the decision process, Peter Flanigan’s assistant Jonathan Rose, this behavior went beyond acceptable bounds. Rose observed that
Ed David and Don Rice may well have been right that there existed a different cost curve than the one that NASA was able to find for a shuttle with a smaller bay and lighter payload. I am quite clear that only their pressure forced the shuttle modifications which produced the massive savings from the August shuttle [the two-stage design] to the December shuttle. They were however unable to prove their case when it came to another billion dollars in potential savings if we delayed for several months more. While NASA may not historically have effectively studied the smaller shuttle, I became convinced that Jim Fletcher had in the time given to him done the best he could. In the last analysis, that is all one can ask of an honest agency head. He should not be brutalized on a continuing basis by the budget process or by the White House staff when such pressure appears to reach the point of diminishing return.
The essence of judgment is to know when to stop. I simply think that Don Rice failed us here. He viewed the political situation as well as the plight of the contractors very lightly. He was far more interested in pursuing the marginal cost savings which his staff led him to believe were possible. This in turn finally led him to some highly shoddy tactics in ex parte lobbying.
I believe we reached the best possible result under the circumstances. In a non-election year I might have seen the equation differently and been willing to wait several extra months to see if Rice was right. But I believe you have to play the ball from where it lies, and this after all is 1972.11
It is arguable whether Rice and David “brutalized” NASA in opposing a full capability shuttle or whether they behaved responsibly in making sure the reasons for that opposition were fully understood by the political decision makers. What is clear is that they did state their case with vehemence, that short-term considerations related to aerospace employment in advance of the 1972 presidential election played a crucial role in the final decision to approve the full capability shuttle, that Rice and David were on the losing side of the argument, and that, with the benefit of hindsight, they were fully justified in their opposition.